When Jesus heard this, he marveled at him. He turned to the crowd that was following him. He said, “I tell you not even in Israel have I found faith like this!”
Luke 7: 9
As we understand it, faith is so often a mark of our difference from each other, what discriminates one group of people’s basic understandings of life’s truths from another’s. In our age, no less than in any other human epoch, we struggle to find the ways that make fraternity, or at least coexistence, possible among peoples whose deep-seated convictions and beliefs differ and so often come into conflict. To be honest requires that we admit that most often what we call faith is a source of conflict and division rather than communion. At the recent “Values Voter Summit” one of the prime concerns seemed to be identifying who was and was not a “true Christian.” Those of us of a certain age can recall well the “battle hymns” of our Christian youth which had us marching against the “heathen foe.”
Yet in the gospel today, Jesus is speaking of a very different kind of faith. In the gospels, the grace and mercy of God is not limited by tribe, race or even tradition. The exemplars of faith, for Jesus, are those who are outside of the fold, even those whose God is so different from and inscrutable to the people of Israel.
In what, according to the Gospel, does the “faith” of the Centurion consist? it is apparently a disposition of mind and heart. The Centurion is seeking from Jesus the healing of a slave “whom he highly valued.” The first thing we hear of this Roman soldier is his care and compassion toward one of his slaves. He does not use his rank, position, and social standing to distance himself from others, including his slaves, but rather he “highly values” them. This basic disposition of heart is further exemplified as the people tell Jesus that, “He deserves to have this done for him, since he loves our nation and has himself built the synagogue for us.” (Luke 7: 5) The centurion is one whose love is manifest in action. He also respects and even serves the others in their very differences from himself. He does not demean the religious practice of the Jews, but rather serves it. In this Roman soldier we see a “faith” in the value and the presence of God as manifest in the otherness of those around him.
Finally the faith of the Centurion is not a way of building up his false identity or manipulating the mystery and transcendence, but rather of submitting to it. “Master, don’t trouble yourself any more. I am not fit for you to come under my roof. . . .But say a word and let my servant be healed.” (Luke 7: 6-7) So, as the Gospel sees it, “faith” is not primarily about the superiority of our differences of religion and practice, a source of personal and group pride like tribal or nationalistic patriotism, but rather a being put in our place and a turning toward God’s love and mercy in its total otherness and mystery. “I tell you not even in Israel have I found faith like this!”
None of this is to say, as Jesus makes clear, that the tradition is unimportant. To be formed in a great tradition is one of the greatest gifts we can be given. If shows us a “path to life, to fullness of joy in your presence.” (Psalm 16: 11) The path, however, is a path of reformation and transformation of heart. A sign of being on that path is always the growing realization, as Jan van Ruusbroec says, that the love of God is “common to all.” The more we live in the “valley of humility,” truly knowing who we are and that we are but one among all, the more we experience the light of God’s universal love and mercy. We can be sure that we have very little faith when our “faith” leads us to assume a sense of superiority, be it social or moral, over others.
The Roman Centurion is one of the heroes of faith of the gospel. This pagan loved the Jewish people and fostered their own faith. He humbles himself before Jesus for the sake of his slave. And, finally, he realizes in one who is not “one of his own” the power and wisdom of God, before which he can but fall on his knees in humility. A faith which turns inward toward “one’s own” is not really faith. The “gift of faith” is a summons to recognize and to serve ever more fully the common and ordinary nature of God’s love in all of humanity.
What use is faith to us if it is only a transcription into mythological jargon of the mechanisms of that inhuman grief that grasps its own suffering to itself as a ground of justification and encloses the suffering of others in interpretations that hold it at a safe distance?
And Christian faith? Can we think about our focal symbol, the cross of Jesus, and try to rescue it from its frequent fate as the banner of our own wounded righteousness? If Jesus is indeed what God communicates to us, God’s language for us, his cross is always both ours and not ours; not a magnified sign of our own suffering, but the mark of God’s work in and through the deepest vulnerability; not a martyr’s triumphant achievement, but something that is there for all human sufferers because it belongs to no human cause.
Breathing spaces again: if the cross is what we say it is, it requires that kind of hesitation, that kind of silence.
Rowan Williams, Writing in the Dust, pp. 72-3